The end of summer can bring on the no-more-holiday blues, but fortunately there are lots of great places to have a family mini break near London. Even during school term time you can have a weekend get-away; change up the scenery, relax or have a little adventure. Weekends away from London can sometimes make you appreciate the city even more when you return to it.
A family camping trip is a great weekend away from London that will reunite you with the joys of nature and simple living. And depending on how glam you like your camping, it can be a budget weekend as well!
Embers Campsite, Henley-on-Thames
By Amy Brotherton
I have many happy memories of going camping when I was younger, but at 4 and 6 years old my kids hadn’t been, yet. Like many Londoners we have very little storage in our flat, thus have no room for camping equipment. We couldn’t swing a long holiday away this summer so were looking for a get-away close to London that would somehow facilitate our first family camping experience. Enter, Embers. Embers Camping has basically responded to the brief in my head and made it so.
This camping business operates five sites, all within a two-hour drive from London. Their campsites can be found in Surrey, Sussex, The New Forest, Buckinghamshire, and Oxfordshire. Each tent-only site provides a large open space with fire pits in front of each tent. We spent the first weekend of September camping at the site in Henley-on-Thames. After an hour’s drive on Friday afternoon we arrived and were setting up camp.
A brilliant option for city folk with no equipment is to hire a bell tent (with optional air mattresses) that’s set up when you arrive. We borrowed other essentials such as camp chairs and camp stove from a friend. The bell tent is really spacious, plenty of room to store our things and tall enough to walk around in. Most people on the site had brought their own tents and I couldn’t help gawking at the sizes – they look like butterfly tunnels. Certainly different than the basic tents I crawled into as a kid.
The position of the site here is gorgeous, just off the Thames you can sit out in front of your tent and look out at the river, watch boats and rowers cruising by. I saw several of my fellow campers bravely set off for a morning swim. There is a small shop set up here where you can buy coffee, tea, ice cream and a few other basics including bundles of firewood at £6.50. They also have a pizza oven and sell pre-ordered pizzas weekend evenings.
Outside the shop there’s a charging station where you can plug in your phones and battery packs, and a freezer to put your ice packs in. Thoughtful touches. We used both, although some of our ice packs were taken and never brought back. Time to buy new ice packs (labelled next time)!
Near the shop you’ll find a row of wooden cubicles containing either flushing toilets (with toilet paper and hand disinfectant dispensers) or showers, a row of sinks and large tanks of drinking water. I like that while cars are allowed on site to unload and reload they are then asked to be parked in a lot just a few minutes walk away. No one wants to look at cars when they’re trying to ensconce in nature. Embers has great eco credentials and I was happy to see recycling bins on site for campers to use.
The site has a friendly family feel, with lots of kids running about, playing sports in the communal grassy areas. My kids quickly made friends with two neighbouring boys and they played football together. A family two tents down from us played many games of cricket together. And some lucky adults just chilled out in their camp chairs with a book.
To take advantage of our riverside location I arranged for a canoe rental for Saturday (cost £65). Moose Canoe Hire delivered a canoe to our tent, providing a safety briefing and lifejackets. We had a great time paddling back and forth to Henley – it’s upstream on the way there so you get a bit of a workout! – where we tied up our vessel and went ashore to go for a stroll, look at all the boats, play at a playground and then have a pub lunch. The paddle home was much easier downstream and the views are just spectacular.
In the evenings everyone gets down to the business of cooking up dinner on their camp stoves or grilling over the fire, the wine and beers come out as do the inevitable marshmallows. We saw stars! So many stars. A simple treat for us city dwellers.
Then, when the flames start to calm, everyone trundles over with headtorches on to the sinks for washing up, teeth cleaning and final pre-bed toilet excursion. Most parents, us included, put their kids to bed then head back out for a final drink or two by the fire. Date night under the stars, nice bonus. While the tents were comfortable I had trouble falling asleep the first night as I could hear someone snoring loudly. I’m a light sleeper though – no one else in my tent was bothered by this!
Overall we had a great first family camping trip at this lovely Embers location. I’m now eager to try camping at some of their other sites. Henley is a pop-up site but some of the others are more settled, offering oak washrooms with underfloor heating and some are set on National Trust properties so you could explore a stately home before returning to your stately tent.
Embers is open May – September, so there’s still time for a trip this year! Bookings open in January for the new year.
Gifted camping visit for review purposes.